How to Cope at Home With Kids During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Keep your family healthy—physically and mentally—and minimize spread of the virus

Rachel Peachman child
Scenes from our experiment in home schooling: Annika Peachman, 8 years old, begins an online art class.
Rachel Peachman

This week, COVID-19, like a slow-motion tsunami, finally crashed down on us, wiping away many of our ordinary routines and leaving us in a strange new landscape.

Cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. have multiplied daily, schools and many businesses have closed their doors indefinitely, and public health officials have directed everyone to stay home except for essential activities. Some municipalities have even ordered residents to shelter in place.

Navigating this uncharted territory has particular challenges for parents. Whether you’re on the front lines of the pandemic while your children are home, you’re suddenly out of work with kids to care for, or you’re like me and able to telecommute with your kids underfoot, most of us are overwhelmed. We’re juggling responsibilities with limited or no childcare, taking on home-schooling duties we never anticipated, and trying to follow disease-prevention measures we’re not sure we’re equipped to handle.

In Facebook groups, text chains, and blogs, moms and dads are debating whether kids should have play dates or visit grandparents, what to do if someone in the house gets a fever, the best ways to minimize germ transmission, and how we’re all supposed to stay safe and sane.

To address these concerns, I talked with pediatricians, infectious-disease specialists, and parents nationwide. Their insights offer much-needed clarity during this uncertain time, and a reminder that while we may be feeling isolated, we’re not alone.

Why It’s So Important to Stay Home

There are two main reasons it’s crucial for families to stay home as much as possible now, says Sean O’Leary, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

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“First, though coronavirus will inevitably spread, we want to slow it down, so hospitals aren’t inundated at once,” says O’Leary, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Second, we want to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations with underlying health conditions from getting the virus because they are more likely to develop severe illness.”

Indeed, early research shows that children tend to have less severe symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, compared with older adults. But that doesn’t mean kids aren’t at risk for getting the virus or passing it to others. In fact, evidence suggests that children are as likely as adults to get the coronavirus. But because children may have few or no symptoms, we might not know it.

The safest thing to do, then, is to avoid unnecessary exposure to others, particularly if you live with a grandparent or someone with a compromised immune system. That way, you and your kids won’t inadvertently spread the coronavirus to them.

While many people are not able to work from home, my husband and I both can, and we’ve been able to make other adjustments. For instance, I canceled an upcoming plane trip and we rejiggered plans for my older daughter’s 12th birthday. Instead of going out for a family dinner with my parents, who are in their 70s, we FaceTimed with them, and then celebrated at home with cake and a movie. In light of everything, these adjustments felt minor.

Rachel Peachman child
A creative outlet: Lena Peachman, 12 years old, takes a break from home schooling to paint at the kitchen table.

Rachel Peachman Rachel Peachman

Just Say No to Playdates

Many parents on social media have been discussing whether kids can get together at home in small groups or one-on-one. But the overwhelming consensus from public health experts is to call off play dates and any other non-essential contact with people who don’t live with you.

“Given that it can take five to 14 days to develop symptoms of coronavirus, and because the average child is going to have mild to no symptoms, many children may be contagious without knowing they’re infected,” says Steve Silvestro, M.D., a pediatrician in the Washington, D.C., area.

So even if your son’s best buddy seems healthy right now, that’s no guarantee he isn’t carrying the coronavirus, and the same goes for your child.

Every infection is the result of a chain of infections. “If you’re hanging out with people and they’re hanging out with other people, you can see that your own primary and secondary circles start to get bigger and bigger,” Silvestro says. “You could end up with the same number of exposures as in a full classroom of kids, which defeats the purpose of canceling school.”

What you can do, however, is go outside for fresh air and exercise. Take walks or play basketball with your kids. You could even plan a bike ride with a friend as long as you stay at least 6 feet apart. But skip the public playground equipment, O’Leary says, because research shows the coronavirus can survive on metal surfaces for days.

“We’ve said no playdates, which my kids aren’t happy about,” says Traci Kantowski, who has two elementary-school-age children in Wheaten, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. But she has offered to go on walks with her kids and their friends as long as they stand several feet apart. “A fun thing our neighborhood is doing this week is everyone is making shamrocks and leprechauns to hang in windows, and kids are hunting for them while out on walks and social distancing.”

Emily McClemens, a mother of two school-age daughters in Orlando, Fla., says her family canceled its spring break trip this week but are spending lots of time outside and on family bike rides. “But I’ve noticed several play dates in our neighborhood where kids and parents are gathered,” she says. “I don’t think people realize how serious this is.”

Practice Basic Germ Control

If you do leave the house, use hand sanitizer after touching public surfaces, and avoid touching your face. When you come back home, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Keeping hands clean is one of the most critical steps you can take to minimize the germs you bring home and to prevent infection.

You could also consider wearing gloves while you’re out. “The skin on my hands started cracking due to all the extra hand-washing and sanitizing, so I’ve been wearing gloves when I do have to go somewhere public,” says Donna Wolfe, a mom of two daughters in Olympia, Wash. “I remove them as soon as I get in the car, before touching the steering wheel or anything else.”

Silvestro, the pediatrician in the D.C. area, who’s also the host of the “Child Repair Guide” podcast, says wearing gloves could also provide an extra reminder to not touch your face. But don’t buy disposable latex gloves now because those may be in short supply for medical personnel. Any type of gloves will suffice here as long as you wash them after using them.

Remember that it’s still crucial to wash your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, and after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When cleaning at home, you can reduce the spread of many pathogens by focusing on common areas, especially those that get a lot of “touch traffic.” These include kitchen counters, sink faucets, doorknobs, refrigerator door pulls, light switches, and toilet handles, says the AAP’s O’Leary. If you have a baby or toddler who tends to mouth toys, wash those regularly, too.

What to Do If Your Child Seems Sick

Research from the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak abroad has found that children are much less likely than adults to experience the most severe manifestations of the coronavirus for reasons that scientists are still figuring out. In most children who’ve contracted the virus, the symptoms—such as fever, cough, and gastrointestinal upset—have been mild and can be treated at home.

There is, however, new research from China that found that a small percentage of children with the coronavirus, particularly infants and toddlers, became severely ill.

“If your child starts to look ill, call your doctor for guidance,” O’Leary says. “But don’t go to the doctor unless you’re advised to, because we don’t want to unnecessarily overwhelm our healthcare system. It might or might not be coronavirus and in most parts of the country, they’re not going to be able to test your child at this time anyway.”

Still, even without a confirmed diagnosis, your doctor is likely to suggest that you treat your child’s symptoms with over-the-counter medication, rest, and liquids—as you would for the flu. If symptoms worsen, call your doctor, O’Leary says.

If your child has an underlying condition, such as asthma; an autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes; or a history of lung, heart, or kidney disease, “monitor them closely, and, if coronavirus symptoms are present, be in close contact with your doctor,” Silvestro says.

If your child, or anyone in your house, is sick and having difficulty breathing, get medical help right away.

Lynel Katz, a neighbor of mine in Westfield, N.J., with three kids, two of whom have type 1 diabetes, is not taking any chances. “We’re staying in,” she says. “We’ve stocked up on all medicine and have extra insulin in the fridge.”

Separate Symptomatic Family Members

If someone at home is feeling sick, keep that person in a separate room as much as possible. While this may be difficult, especially in close quarters or when kids share a bedroom, do your best to create distance around that family member. Family members who are sick should also wear a face mask when around others, if one is available, according to the CDC.

“Also wash and disinfect all items they use, and provide dedicated items if possible,” says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Simmons University in Boston and an expert in home and community hygiene. “Avoid sharing towels, do lots of hand-washing, and disinfect all hand contact surfaces in the home on at least a daily basis and maybe more frequently.”

You may never know for certain whether your sick family member has the coronavirus, but for right now, “act as if they have it,” Silvestro says. “I’m not usually one to drum up anxiety, but because this virus is sneaky and easily spread, we have to essentially act as if anybody could have it.”

How to Boost Your Mental Health

While parents are no doubt worried about their families, their communities, their finances, and more, the AAP emphasizes that we can all benefit from activities that keep us calm and connected to others.

Bake with the kids, go for a run, talk on the phone with your best friend, and encourage your kids to connect online with theirs.

The AAP also recommends creating a daily family routine because structure can help both kids and adults feel a sense of security during stressful times. This could include time for work, studying, a break for lunch and a stroll, and an evening family board game.

For Margo DeAngelo, in New York City, the simple act of making shrimp scampi for dinner this week gave her and her school-age daughter some comfort. “Getting something halfway decent on the table makes me feel like normalcy isn’t totally lost,” she says.

Tammy Spiewak, another neighbor of mine and a certified yoga teacher, just set up livestream yoga and meditation classes for families at an affordable price. “I saw how parents were scrambling to figure out what to do with their kids at home, and I knew I could offer an activity that lowers stress and helps people feel better physically and emotionally,” Spiewak says. “I’ve realized how important it is for the parents to participate also, because frankly the parents need it as much or more than the kids.”

For me, someone who’s used to working in front of my computer in relative isolation, I’m going to try to use this time as an opportunity to connect more, even if it’s only via phone or social media. The way I see it: Though we’ll be keeping our physical distance from each other, we’re all in this together.

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).